On December 26, 1985, horror novelist Whitley Strieber claimed he was visited by intelligent beings that were not human. Under hypnosis, he recounted fantastic stories of seemingly extraterrestrial beings spiriting him from his cabin in upstate New York, and taking him aboard what could only be described as a spaceship. According to Strieber, the creatures—some of them small, blue, and troll-like, and others thin and white, with large black eyes—poked him, prodded him, and even presented him with confounding philosophical imagery.
1987 saw the publication of Communion, Strieber’s full account of his experiences with the beings he referred to as “visitors”. The book was instantly controversial; The publisher billed it as a “true story”, but was Strieber crazy, a big fat liar, or did it really happen? It hardly mattered, because the book shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and almost single-handedly sparked a huge wave of interest in the alien abduction phenomena that continues today.
It was only inevitable that Communion would be made into a film. But due to the subject matter, the book was shunned by most of mainstream Hollywood, and eventually it was made as a moderately budgeted independent film. Whitley Strieber adapted his own book into the screenplay, and he enlisted director (and long time friend) Philippe Mora, whose other films (The Beast Within, The Howling II & III) were strictly B-movie fare. But in spite of the relatively small budget, Strieber and Mora were able to attract A-list talent, recruiting Eric Clapton to score the film and Oscar nominee Christopher Walken (one of the most fascinating actors alive) to play the part of Whitley Strieber himself.
The movie follows much the same plot as the book (though there are plenty of significant diversions throughout). We open with Walken as Strieber, an eccentric New York author in the middle of writing his latest horror novel. When Strieber writes, he wears a tall fedora, headphones, giant glasses, and yells random non sequiters when his PC acts up. (“I lost, what I lost was another day. What I lost was gold! Golden notions erased, smoke dreams, phantoms, what I crave is, uh… cancellation!”)
Strieber has a wife named Anne (played by Lindsay Crouse) and a young son, and initially their lives are the picture of domestic bliss. Well, it’s domestic bliss, Walken-style. (At night we see him put his glasses on upside down and jokingly tell his wife stuff like, “Say something dirty. Can you say ‘erection’?”)
One night in October, the Striebers and a pair of friends decide to spend a night at Whitley’s upstate cabin. But during the night, intensely bright lights shine through the windows. Whitley has scattered visions of intruders inside the cabin. In the middle of the night, he gets out of bed and sits trance-like in a bedside chair, and as the hint of an alien eye peeks around a door, a catatonic Whitley asks, “Is that someone there?”
The next morning, Whitley and the others have no memory of anything out of the ordinary. But his friends are terrified, and demand to be taken back to the city immediately. They never give a reason, but over the subsequent months, Whitley finds himself growing strangely tense and anxious. His fear reaches its peak at Halloween, when he’s so terrified by a teenager’s insect costume that he screams and yells and causes a scene.
Still with no recollection of what really happened that night, the Striebers return to the cabin for Christmas. But this time, Whitley wakes up with clear memories of creatures taking him from his bed. He remembers the classic abduction experience, everything from being taken aboard a “spaceship” by blue troll-like beings, to being given an anal probe. He even has a strange mark on the back of his head where he remembers a thin, white creature inserting a needle.
After a medical checkup shows no abnormalities, Whitley is referred to a psychiatrist played by Frances Sternhagen. Taking her advice, he undergoes hypnosis, where he finally remembers the entire experience in all its horror. He’s certain it’s a psychotic hallucination, until his wife Anne also subjects herself to hypnosis and eerily remembers a similar incident.
This leads Whitley to attend a support group for people with abduction experiences. At first he rejects their accounts as crazy, but eventually he gains the courage to face the visitors again. Returning to the cabin alone in the middle of the night, he enters a bright light and finds himself back on the “spaceship”, where a series of baffling dreamlike images play out before him.
My opinion of this film is hardly objective, because Communion is one of my all-time favorite books. I’ve hardly ever read a novel multiple times (Heck, it’s rare that I even finish reading a novel once), but so far I’ve read Communion four times. It’s the book that made me a believer for a short time (until I realized that the evidence for UFO abductions was, to put it mildly, extremely shaky; If people were really being taken out of their beds at night by aliens, wouldn’t there be more physical evidence than burnt shrubbery or a tiny scar on someone’s scalp?). But even despite the skeptic in me, I love Communion. It may not be the “true story” that the publisher (or the movie) makes it out to be, but there’s no denying it’s a horror classic.
Which is why it was so incredibly frustrating to see how little of the book actually ended up on the screen. A straightforward, word-for-word re-telling of the events Strieber described would have made for a terrifying film. Instead, director Mora opted for a more dreamlike, metaphorical, and surrealist film that is anything but straightforward.
But worse than that, the film is full of events that were never mentioned in the book. For example, the Halloween scene where Whitley is terrified by the kid in the insect costume is nowhere to be found in the book. Likewise, the screenplay also introduces a way-out-there scene where Whitley gets on a city bus, only to hallucinate that everyone onboard is wearing insect masks.
Strieber wrote the screenplay himself, based on his own experiences, so what are we to make of these scenes? Did they really happen, and if so, why didn’t he include this stuff in the book? And if they didn’t happen, why are they in the movie? I’m not opposed to a film tinkering with the source material a little bit, even if it’s supposedly a factual account, but frankly, these new scenes are far less interesting than most of what’s actually in the book.
Upon first viewing, I hated this movie. But after watching it again recently, without the book fresh in mind, I can see that a lot of it does work. I never get tired of watching Christopher Walken, and he’s the kind of actor that really shines when his character is struggling to hold onto his sanity. Plus, he’s got great chemistry with Lindsay Crouse as his wife, and in their scenes together you can vividly see their marriage crumbling under the weight of Strieber’s fear and paranoia.
Walken also delivers his share of pretty funny lines, most of which I’m assuming he improvised himself, because they don’t fit the tone of the book at all. But on their own, they’re worth a chuckle. Like when he tells his friend, “Well, the doctor hypnotized me, I was supposed to recall prowlers, or something, but in fact, I recall something else, I sure do… Little blue fuckers about that big!” And there’s also a scene aboard the “spaceship” where Whitley first sees the rectal probe. Walken quips, “Can we talk this over? Looks like you’re gonna sing ‘White Christmas’!”
But, unfortunately, the movie as a whole remains unsatisfying. The biggest problem, oddly enough, is the casting. Christopher Walken’s had a recent surge in popularity, but we’ve known for decades that he’s a capable, captivating actor. However, casting him as a Strieber was a fatal mistake.
The only reason abduction stories like The UFO Incident or Fire in the Sky worked at all is because the abductees were shown to be relatively well-adjusted, level-headed individuals before their abduction experiences. Walken, on the other hand, comes off as only slightly less bizarre than the creatures who pull him out of bed. His typically Walken-esque performance is so off the wall that you won’t for a minute feel like you’re watching a true story.
Director Philippe Mora seemed to have high artistic aspirations for this film, but its B-movie seams are clearly showing. The special effects used to render the “aliens”, for example, are remarkably unconvincing. The blue troll-like guys, who look like the Jawas from Star Wars, are only somewhat believable, while the thin, white aliens with huge black eyes are obviously rubber puppets that barely even move.
The B-movie roots are also apparent in the scene where Whitley attends the abductee support group. Not one member of the group comes across as the least bit believable or natural, and I had to wonder if it was really a support group for bad actors. Hopefully everyone in that scene cherished the opportunity to work with an actor as great as Christopher Walken, because it’s pretty unlikely to happen to them again.
It’s the final third, however, that completely torpedoes the movie. Once he returns to the “spaceship”, Whitley actually spends time dancing with the aliens, having them thumb their noses at him [?], and to top it all off, Whitley and the aliens actually high five each other [!].
Then, in the movie’s most maddening flight of fancy, Whitley is confronted by a clone of himself dressed as a magician (Needless to say, there’s nothing even remotely like this in the book). Here Walken is wearing more makeup than in his “Continental” sketches on Saturday Night Live as he spouts nonsense like, “I am the dreamer! You are the dream!”
This final section of the film is so surreal, and so bereft of plot, that all notions of linear storytelling vanish right before our eyes. We no longer care if Whitley Strieber is telling the truth, because the movie seems to be saying that it was all just a dream or a delusion anyway. And at the end of the film, we have no idea what the resolution is, or if we’ve even watching a story that has a resolution.
Philippe Mora is no stranger to frustrating stories. Howling II was a god-awful mess (I’m not exactly sure when my brain checked out during that movie—Was it the moment when Christopher Lee put on punk rock sunglasses, or when the midget’s eyes exploded?), and Howling III was even more maddening, because it was a collection of bizarre and silly scenes that added up to absolutely nothing. Communion is nowhere near as confusing as those films, and may even be Mora’s best film, but sadly, that’s not saying much (or anything).
The film continues to enjoy a cult following, however, due to its devoted UFO-obsessed fan base. Christopher Walken probably summed up the alien abduction phenomena best when asked in an interview if he thought there was any truth to Strieber’s story. He said, “Whitley has people come over to his house, people who had the same thing happen to them, and they all agree about what the aliens looked like. And they all seem perfectly… well, they all have jobs.”